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alone in a zooming crowd

a blog post by Laura Yoo

Laura Yoo, HoCoPoLitSo Board Member and Professor of English at Howard Community College

In the time before quarantine – do you remember? – people used to sit in a room together for readings. We shared a physical space and we were there not only in mind but also in body. When a poem was read, we reacted. We observed the small changes in each other’s bodies: tilting of the head, rigorous nodding, maybe a rolling tear, or uncrossing then recrossing of the legs. Maybe a faint smile or an uncomfortable cough. Maybe a small sound – like “oof” or “whew” or “wow” – escaping our mouths involuntarily. Maybe two strangers’ eyes would meet – and maybe they’d smile or raise an eyebrow in agreement. Then, having experienced the reading together, friends or strangers might stand around the refreshments table or stand in line for the book-signing and debrief: What did you think? I didn’t expect that! I loved that one poem about… I am thinking about that line…

In the time of COVID, attending readings is a very different experience. I’m alone in the bedroom with a glass of wine. That’s it: me, wine, and computer screen. Most of these virtual events show only the author and the moderator (for a good reason) and there is little or no interaction. If I make faces or a gasp escapes my mouth, it’s just for me. Sometimes I cry alone. Other times I laugh and snort all to myself. I might hop online to order a copy of the author’s book even as they’re still reading. I might text my husband to please bring me more wine. It’s a solitary experience.

If a friend is also joining the reading from the comfort of her own home with her own glass of wine, we might text each other. Instead of exchanging looks, we exchange emojis, maybe a “WTF” or an “OMG”. But this isn’t always possible – sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s kids’ meal times or bed times, and sometimes it’s just that there is nothing left to give at the end of a COVID-day.

Purdue Creative Writing Program: Franny Choi and Cameron Awkwrd-Rich reading (September 3, 2020)

Recently I was in a virtual open mic reading when a debate arose: one of the poets read a poem in which he uses the n-word and one person in the audience shared in the chat that they were offended. The moderators responded, then the poet addressed the issue – about how and why he’s using the word. I wished I could hear that audience member’s voice and see their face. What would I have heard or seen? Anger? Sadness? Pain? I also wished I could turn to a friend or a stranger and look for a reaction. I wished I could stand by the refreshments table and ask, “So what did you make of that?” Instead, I emailed a few friends about it and we met a couple of days later on Zoom to chat about it. That led to an important conversation about who, what, where, when, why, and how of the n-word in poetry. And that was good. Still. What I missed was the opportunity to commune with others spontaneously, the chance to exchange looks and ideas with each other as it was unfolding.

In the “before time,” why did people even go to poetry readings? We can find an endless supply of videos of writers’ readings, talks, performances, and lectures online. Still, we got tickets, we got babysitters, we drove, we got ourselves to places on time, we found our seats, and we sat with others to listen. We made dinner reservations or post-reading drinking plans. What was all that for? For the community. For the shared sound of language. For the faces. For the movement of bodies. For the physical proximity to the creators of art. For the reaction from and discussions with other patrons of art.

I miss people. I miss sharing space with people. But I realize it’s a trade off. And I have a feeling that even when we “go back” we may never go back to the way we used to do things, including literary readings. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Books in Bloom: Frances Cha (left) and Eun Yang (August 14, 2020)

I am grateful that we could eavesdrop on Eula Biss’s (Having and Being Had) conversation with Cathy Hong Park (Minor Feelings). What an incredible opportunity it was to listen to Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an Antiracist) along with 1000 other people. When Claudia Rankine and Robin DiAngelo had a conversation about Just Us for New York’s 92Y, everyone with a link (and $15) could watch. How cool that Purdue Creative Writing presented Cameron Awkward-Rich (Dispatch) and Franny Choi (Soft Science) and made the registration open to the public and free. Even though Frances Cha, the author of If I Had Your Face, was at her home in Korea, she could have a conversation with Eun Yang (NBC news anchor in Washington, D.C.) at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening (EST). It was 8 a.m. in Korea.

In this time of stress and uncertainty, having access to art virtually significantly improves the quality of my life. And I am grateful for that.

So, I hope you will join me at some of these virtual events that are coming up.

  • Sunday, September 27, 2020: The Creative Process
    Wednesday, September 30, 2020: Inclusion
    Sunday, October 4, 2020: Representation
  • Time(s): 7:00pm – 8:30pm
  • Hosted by Howard Community College’s Arts Collective and Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
  • Friday, October 2, 2020
  • Time: 7:30pm
  • Jose Ross reads from his new work Raising King 
  • Introduction by E. Ethelbert Miller
  • Hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Conversation with Lisa See (The Island of Sea Women)

  • Tuesday, October 6, 2020
  • Time: 11:00 am
  • Conversation host: Laura Yoo (yeah, that’s me!)
  • Hosted by Maryland Humanities One Maryland One Book and Howard County Library System in partnership with Howard County Poetry and Literature Society

Suhani and Rebecca host Teen Open Mic on July 17th

HoCoPoLitSo is proud to support the Open Mic Teen Reading Series. The event’s organizers are Suhani Khosla and Rebecca Ledger, rising seniors at Atholton High School who share a passion for literature and poetry. They pursue this interest by organizing creative writing events at school.  With this open mic event, Suhani and Rebecca hope to bring together middle and high school students to share their literary talents with the community. A variety of pieces can be shared, ranging from short stories to poetry. The organizers hope that in light of current events, this event will provide a safe environment and an outlet for creative expression for young poets and writers.

The format is an Open Mic, and participants should RSVP by emailing khoslasuhani@gmail.com and rebecca14122002@yahoo.fr before July 17th. The first reading will take place on July 17th at 7pm.  Google Meet code: meet.google.com/btd-fokf-gqc.

Get to know our organizers, Suhani and Rebecca:

Why do you write? Or, what drives you or motivates you to write?
S: I write to express myself and explore a creative outlet.
R: I use writing as an escape from every day life. I find writing to be a sanctuary for me.
Who in your life gets to read the first of your writing?
S: People who usually first see my writing are my family members and friends, and also some people who are willing to look over and edit.
R: My cousin, who is also my best friend, reads the first of my writing.
Do you have any consistent writing rituals
S: When I prepare to write, I listen to music and start drafting at night. I look over what I wrote in the morning to finalize.
R: I usually write in my room late at night or when I have any down time. I usually listen to music or sometimes even audio recordings of poems to channel my creativity.
What is a book you’ve read more than twice?
S: I read 1984 by George Orwell three times. I really liked Orwell and Huxley’s work, or any dystopian novel.
R: I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee twice. It’s one of my favorite books and to this day. I still sometimes flip back to my favorite passages.
What made you want to organize this event?
S: To bring  the community together during these rough times. Poetry can help with expressing concerns and opinions in a safe environment.
R: To give people the opportunity to express themselves through poetry, especially in these difficult times.

Wilde Readings Quick Six with Rissa Miller

Rissa Miller, author of Goodnight, Poet: Poems to Share at Bedtime

Occasionally, the writers who read at the Wilde Readings will answer our six burning questions about their craft and literary favorites. This month, Rissa Miller, who read at Wilde Readings on February 11th, answers our questions.  Ms. Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville on February 12th at 7 pm.

Who is the person in your life (past or present) that shows up most often in your writing?

I’d like to say something more honorable or romantic, but if poets seek truth, I must confess – it’s myself. All things I write, whether poetry, fiction, article, or essay have some part of me in them. Many people have influenced my writing. There are high school English teachers whose voices still echo in my mind as I write; a particularly tough professor will always be with me. She didn’t allow me to use the word “that.” Of course, my friends, family, husband, animal companions – each life that has held my heart, as well as enemies and those who hurt me, will always show up in my writing. They are the souls that formed my voice.r

Where is your favorite place to write?

Anywhere quiet. Home, work, libraries, coffee shops, laundromats. I’m not particular. I’ve written on napkins in cafes, walked out of meetings to write poems in the bathroom at jobs, and scrawled in ballpoint pen up my own arm at stoplights in the car.

Do you have any consistent pre-writing rituals?

Hot green tea. It’s more of a life ritual, I always have hot green tea, even when working out. But writing almost cannot happen without a mug besides me, gently filling the air with steam and subtle verdant aroma.

Who always gets a first read?

My husband, Nathaniel. Well, sometimes our dog, The Dude, hears me read aloud first. After them, my critique group, Ali, Melisa and Robin, see things in early stages.

What is a book you’ve read more than twice (and would read again)?

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; in poetry, Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda. Each one I’ve read several times; each I am confident I will read again.

What is the most memorable reading you have attended?

Allen Ginsberg. Hearing the master himself read Kaddish, the epic poem about the life and death of his mother, literally gave me chills. At the time I was working as a journalist and had the incredible opportunity to interview him afterwards. Though I rarely get nervous and was never star struck around celebrities, Ginsberg made me break out in a cold sweat and stutter through me questions. Not just a famous personality, he was a true influence on the history poetry and writing, as well as a moment in American Society. It was such an honor.

Rissa Miller is hosting a free poetry workshop at the Nest in Clarksville, Maryland on February 12th at 7 pm. No experience required.

The next Wilde Readings is on March 10th at the Columbia Art Center and will feature authors Reuben Jackson & Edgar Silex.

on writing together

blog post by Laura Yoo

Often we portray writing as a lonely endeavor and we imagine writers cooped up in their writing rooms, alone, toiling away. This part of the writing process may well be true and writing does demand quietness and solitude. But writing also takes place in community with other writers, sometimes virtually, sometimes through conversation over the phone or email, and sometimes in real life at a coffee shop.

Laura Shovan, the author of a children’s book Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary and a collection of poetry Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, started what she hopes will become a regular event: a write-in at the Common Kitchen in Clarksville, Maryland.

The first one took place on January 28th. In one corner of the Common Kitchen, tables were reserved for “Writers Corner.” As each person came in from the cold and joined the group, Laura introduced everyone. We sat together, each with his or her laptop or notebook, and worked quietly. Poet Patricia VanAmburg, who was at the write-in, shared with me how important it is for her to have a writing partner. She and author Ann Bracken are longtime critique partners who meet on a weekly basis to share their writings and give each other feedback. So, Patricia welcomed this new gathering of writers. Laura says 8 people attended this first write-in, including a few members of the he MD-DE-WV chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) and Mel Beatty who is a bookseller at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, Maryland. HoCoPoLitSo’s Tim Singleton (who worked on this piece in the session) and Susan Thornton Hobby also joined the writing fun.

Laura Shovan, Patricia VanAmburg, and Tim Singleton at the Write-In at the Common Kitchen on January 28, 2020

Laura Shovan is no stranger to “writing together.” She co-authored A Place at the Table with Saadia Faruqi, and she will be sharing that experience at the Maryland Writers Association Conference in March.  Laura also brings writers together virtually through her February Poetry Project. She invites group members (usually no more than 40 people) to write a poem a day on a specific theme. For instance, last year’s theme was food and this year’s theme is is water. Group members sign up to come up with the daily prompt, and then they each write and post their drafts in a private Facebook group that same day.

Creative writing instructor and poet Tara Hart says that all students in her class at Howard Community College share their drafts in online discussion boards, but many find it daunting to provide specific feedback on each other’s writing – they may feel tentative, unqualified, or nervous of giving offense – and need a strong template to help them craft comments that are insightful and truly helpful to the writers.  She encourages them to first identify what “shines” for them in a piece in order to discern a notable strength, and then to think creatively by generating a series of “what if?” questions – what if the story were told in the first person instead of the third? What if the poem ended a stanza earlier? What if the first line were the last line? In mastering peer review, they become better writers, more able to recognize the strengths to retain in their own work and to generate more possibilities for improvement, and, she hopes, more likely to seek supportive writing communities in the future.

All local writers (and anyone willing to make a drive!) are invited to the next write-in at the Common Kitchen on February 25th 9:30 am to 12:30 pm.

Writers and readers alike can also find community of lovers of writing at the next Wilde Readings With Pantea A. Tofangchi & Rissa Miller on February 11th 7 pm at the Columbia Art Center and at HoCoPoLitSo’s 42nd Annual Irish Evening with Alice McDermott on February 21st 7:30 pm at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in Columbia.

young men preparing for battle

blog post by Laura Yoo

The Story Studs.  These are five guys – Keegan, Will, Nate, Sammy, and Julien – who are preparing for the biggest battle of their lives.  It will be the one of the nerdiest and the coolest (at the same time, yes) things they do together: They will fight in Howard County’s Battle of Books.

Battle of Books is Howard County Library System’s impressive reading program that encourages elementary school students to read a same set of books and come together to compete. On April 17th, fifth graders from all over the county will show up at various high school gyms to battle in teams.  They will have read and studied 12 books to answer questions about those books. They will have awesome team names – like the Story Studs – and decked out in costumes.

The coaches and the team members have been diligently working our way through the 12 books:

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Lucky Broken Girl and Ruth Behar
  • Me, Frida, and the Secrets of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
  • Forest World by Margarita Engle
  • Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood
  • Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
  • The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson
  • Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

As the assistant coach, I have been enjoying the books, too.  So far,  Ban This Book, Ghosts, and Save Me a Seat have really impressed me.  These books range in their topics, characters, and settings. Each book, however, touches on a theme or a topic that I’d love for all children to think about: how to welcome strangers, bullying, not judging a book by its cover, death, family, culture, friendship, family life, freedom of speech, censorship, and reading. Yes, just in these three books, the little readers are exposed to all these topics.  I think Ban This Book ought to be made into a kids’ movie.  The multicultural elements in Save Me a Seat and Ghosts show just how thoughtfully the library is choosing these books – books like these can be windows through which children can see and learn about other cultures.

The Story Studs will now meet about every other week to catch up with each other about the books they’re reading. At each meeting, the readers update each other on their reading progress and share one story map they’ve completed (this helps them take notes about each book). They play games to learn and memorize the titles and the author names.  They have also begun drafting their own sample questions to use to prepare for battle. It’s fun, but it’a also serious learning business.

The beauty of this Battle of Books – at least for the Story Studs – is that it brings together these close friends to share more quality time outside of school.  They arrive at one of our homes after school, eat snacks, and run around for a few minutes. Then, they sit and work diligently for a good 45 minutes.  Then off they go again to release more of that 10-year old energy. I absolutely love it.

I will report back on how the real battle goes on April 17th.  Now – where to find leather jackets for 10 year old boys…

Butter Beans and Poems: A Harvest Reading

There’s something primal about harvest, something deeper, more resonant than a pumpkin spice latte when the leaves start to fall.

Harvest is about food, of course, a storing away of all the energy and sunshine and hard work of summer for a slower, more contemplative time. Sure, there are pumpkins, but fall is also about the last tomatoes and corn, and the starchy parsnips and potatoes that last all winter long.

I think of poems and stories as a kind of harvest, storing up the ephemeral to be savored later.

The Between the Leaves Project is about linking writing with the food we grow and eat. HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library have teamed up to put literature — about collard greens and zinnias and raspberries and butter beans — in the Enchanted Garden at the Miller Branch.

Signs, bearing excerpts from poems and novels that relate to the crops being grown, have been thrust into the garden plots, a lovely quarter-acre just outside the Ellicott City library branch. The vegetables and fruits grown in the garden by volunteers, from library teens to Master Gardeners, are harvested every week and donated to the Howard County Food Bank.

The signs offer a little taste of literature in the garden, but if you’d like a full serving, attend the harvest reading on Oct. 28. Authors, board members of HoCoPoLitSo, and staff and friends of the library will read poems that will leave us hungry. Hear works by Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Gary Snyder, Pablo Neruda, and other authors. Snacks will be served and books with the poems, as well as excerpts from novels and short stories, will be available for borrowing.

Join us at the drop-in reading 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, at the Miller Branch library in the garden under the twinkling lights, for an evening of poetry to savor.

Miller Branch Library Enchanted Garden

Over the moon for library’s read-alouds for adults

a blog post written by Susan Thornton Hobby (HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary)

I was primed for the Central Library’s short story program. Years of childhood bedtime stories read to me by my mother from what my brother and I called “the red books,” a sixteen-volume set published by The Spencer Press in 1953 made me first into a riveted listener, and then a devoted reader.

Those books, especially Best Loved Poems and First Story Book, included gems like “Wynken, Blinken, and Nod” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And when I had children, I spent seventeen years reading out loud, from the red books and You Can Name One Hundred Trucks through all nine Harry Potters and into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So when the Central Library started “Keep it Short: Adult Selections Read Aloud,” I was already on the “bedtime stories for adults” train. On July 16, library story-tellers Roy Ringel and Michael Toner read space-themed texts, since it was the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Apollo 11 rocket.

On July 16, 1969, the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket launches on the Apollo 11 mission from the Kennedy Space Center

Ringel read D.C. writer Amber Sparks’ short story “The Janitor in Space,” a haunting, quiet story about a wounded woman who finds a little solitary peace cleaning up after astronauts on the space station. The audience settled in, and we listened stock-still to Ringel: “She keeps the station clean and shiny as the future,” Ringel read, and “lonely is the only thing she owns.”

In a shirt embroidered with tiny parrots, Toner read “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang. The story is narrated by a parrot who laments that humans listen so intensely for extraterrestrial messages from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but they ignore the brilliant language of the parrots all around them, the ones that are going extinct.

And Ringel finished the evening’s adult story-time with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University that many credit with Americans supporting space exploration. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” Ringel read, “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Caren Ferris explained that she is a regular attender at the short story readings: “it opens me to new ideas. You stumble across a writer you can connect with. You come across things you wouldn’t have seen yourself.” A story by Langston Hughes read during the library’s February “Keep it Short” program has stayed with Ferris all year, she says, and she always goes back and researches and reads more of the authors’ work. These stories, she says, “connect the dots.”

However literature can reach people, stretch their minds, and connect them with other humans (or parrots), HoCoPoLitSo is all for it. And so am I. I was so cozy after the stories. If only the library allowed sleepovers.

The library resumes adult read-aloud programs at the Central Branch in the fall. Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m., is “Word Music: Poetry for Adults,” with Roy Ringel and Erin Frederic. The program spans English poetry’s history, starting in the 16th century and concluding with contemporary poets, and features the work of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Hughes, and Angelou.  On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., Michael Toner reads Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus,” and Roy Ringel presents “This Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Visit http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/ to register.

 

Why I’ll never wash my white T-shirt again

A micro-memoir in the style of Beth Ann Fennelly, written by Susan Thornton Hobby, Executive Producer of the Writing Life 

Beth Ann Fennelly showed up at the Blackbird Poetry Festival last week in a skirt printed with rows of books of many colors, lime-green and fuchsia shoes, a brown sweater dotted with green flowers and a vintage chartreuse Canada Dry T-shirt that I coveted. Fennelly, who was at the festival to give a workshop, and give two readings, is the author, most recently, of Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs.

Anyone looking at both of us together could tell immediately who the poet was – I was in a white T-shirt, black pants and gray jacket. I did put on my red shoes, but other than that, I was as neutral as Switzerland.

Danielle Maloney, television director extraordinaire of The Writing Life, explained that because we use a green screen with a computer-generated set when taping the show, Fennelly’s torso would disappear – literally melt into the electronic background.

Fennelly would be not the headless horseman but the torso-less poet. She and I locked eyes. Then we both looked at my chest. The white T-shirt.

As she later told the audience at the Nightbird reading, “my host gave me the shirt off her back.”

But in the television studio, Beth Ann moaned, “I need color,” gazing forlornly at my boring shirt.

HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director Pam Simonson, the ultimate problem-solver, donated her butter-yellow jacket, which matched a few books on the skirt, and Beth Ann had a new outfit. I wore a Dragon Digital Television polo that the director found in a box in her office.

After a deep and hilarious thirty-minute conversation on The Writing Life, lead by poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Fennelly and I rushed to the car so she could grab some dinner and change before the evening reading. I was carrying books, a few remaining cookies from the dozen I baked to fuel the student camera operators, my jacket, Pam’s jacket, and the white T-shirt.

After I had dropped Fennelly at her hotel, I wanted to change back into my white shirt for the reading. I searched  my car’s back seat, front seat, floorboards. It was gone.

I realized I must have dropped it. No time to find another shirt – I just threw my jacket on top of my black Dragon Digital polo and picked up the poet to reach the reading on time.

Just as we were turning into the parking garage, I told Beth Ann I needed to go search the hallways of Howard Community College for my T-shirt. And then then headlights hit it – a crumpled puddle of white on the parking garage floor.

“I’ll get it!” Beth Ann shrieked, and jumped out, the rhinestones on her vintage dress flashing in the headlights as she triumphantly held the shirt over her head. The shirt was criss-crossed with tire tracks. It smelled of damp cement, Michelin radials, and Beth Ann Fennelly.

I’ll never wash it.

Beth Ann Fennelly: It’s all about the mouth

blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby

An open and shut case at Blackbird Poetry workshop…

Only Beth Ann Fennelly could urge more than 150 people gathered for a writing workshop during the Blackbird Poetry Festival to stick their fingers in their mouths and repeat: “Bet, butt, bet, butt, bet, butt,” until they had figured out how their tongues were making the words.

It also could have been the threat of interpretive dance (their own, if they did not participate).
Either way, Fennelly clearly illustrated her point – the shape of our mouths influences the connotations certain sounds retain, in languages around the world. And therefore, the sounds bring meaning to poetry.

Here’s her quiz.

Carl Sandberg wrote: “The voice of the last cricket/ across the first frost/ is one kind of goodbye.”
The next line, Fennelly asked, is it “so thin a splinter, so meager a morsel or so small an atom?” “Thin a splinter,” someone called from the back of the room. “Yes,” Fennelly said. “That short ‘i’ sound – the sound of small, a vulnerable feeling. “

Poets use sound to make meaning with words that suggest meanings, through their brevity or length of sound (“pup” and “bark” are the same number of syllables, but they take longer to say), the pleasure or discomfort of the sounds in our mouths (“melodious” versus “sticky”), and by setting up and displacing a metrical scheme.

“I’m hedonistic about feeling the sound of words, there’s a pleasure of sound,” Fennelly told the group.
She lead them through poems by Robert Herrick (“melting, melodious words to lutes of amber,” and by Robert Frost, (“The Span of Life” – “the saddest poem in the English language,” Fennelly said.) She talked about how sounds of words can move the poem faster or slower, how a change in sound and rhyme and rhythm can surprise the reader in a good or unpleasant way.

By the end of the workshop, Fennelly gave dark chocolate bars to the students who scored the best on the quiz that tested their ear for poetry’s sounds. Because it was all about the mouth.

P.S. A week after her visit to Columbia, Fennelly was awarded The Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring Award by the University of Mississippi where she teaches.

Beth Ann Fennelly and Susan Thornton Hobby laugh together after the Nightbird reading on April 25, 2019 (photo credit: Laura Yoo)

 

Linda Dove Remembers Stanley Plumly

[a guest blog by poet Linda Dove written for HoCoPoLitSo]

Stanley Plumly died on April 11, 2019, in the most poetic month of the year. He was a poet’s poet and a teacher’s teacher. He authored ten volumes of poetry and four works of nonfiction, several of them award-winners, including a finalist for the National Book Award. He read for HoCoPoLitSo audiences twice – once in 1988 and once in 2010, and served as the Poet Laureate for the state of Maryland for most of the past decade. Since 1985, Plumly taught at the University of Maryland College Park, where he founded the MFA program and mentored students in poetics for more than 30 years.

Image result for stanley plumly

photo credit – Ohio University Libraries

In the fall of 1990, I took a poetry workshop with him at UMCP, where I was—at the time—pursuing a master’s degree in American literature. I was not a poet—instead, I was training to be a scholar of other people’s poetry. But I knew the chance to study with Stan Plumly was not something you passed up, and I, somewhat timidly, filed into the light-filled room every week. It would be years before I would produce a poem that I’d consider good enough to submit to a journal, but I soaked in the lessons nonetheless. For instance, when Stan praised a poem written by a classmate that was an ode to a woman’s areola, it reinforced for me that nothing was off-limits in poetry. Nightingales and Grecian urns might seem more the stuff of poetry, but they were only one means to one end—although, as odes go, those of John Keats were a pretty good bet for what Stan might consider great writing.

In fact, last week, a new poem by the young, celebrated poet Kaveh Akbar, “The Palace,” appeared in The New Yorker and made its lightning-fast rounds on Twitter. When I read the poem, I had the immediate thought, I wonder what Stan Plumly would say about this?, as Akbar imagines the voice of Keats into being (“Hello, this is Keats speaking”). Keats was Stan’s self-described poet-hero, a figure he wrote about extensively in prose, including in his much-praised book, Posthumous Keats:

Keats’s best-known doctrine, Negative Capability, implies an engagement in the actual through imaginative identification that is simultaneously a kind of transcendence. The artist loses the Selfhood that demands a single perspective or “meaning,” identifies with the experience of his/her object, and lets that experience speak itself through him/her. Both the conscious soul and the world are transformed by a dynamic openness to each other.

What’s striking about Stan’s interpretation of the famous Keatsian concept here is his focus on humility—“The artist loses the Selfhood”—that also happened to define Stan as a person. He was warm and generous and down-to-earth, even as he was revered. As one of my fellow graduate students, Renée Curry, recently remembered, “Stan was always ‘present.’ As a teacher, he made us look at the deepest meanings of words, at how they could create fire in a poem. As a reader of our poems, he was always kind, yet firm in what our creations needed in order to grow. . . I am so happy to have spent five years as his student.”

Yet, despite how very human he was, he also commanded the spaces he moved through. As another one of Stan’s students, Valerie Macys, commented, “the room shook just a bit whenever he walked inside.” In fact, she reminded those of us who gathered on Facebook to mourn his passing of how charismatic he was, how he had that special sort of aura about him, despite his modest mannerisms: “do you remember his cowboy boots and his jean jacket? He used to come into the building like he rode in on a stallion.” Or her memory of yet another graduate student, Tim Skeen, on his way to meet Stan in his office hours, who remarked, “‘It’s time to prostrate myself before the Oracle’.” Stan Plumly was larger than life, even as he was unassuming. To paraphrase his own poem, “Wight”—he embodied the verb “to be”:

Is is the verb of being, I the noun—

or pronoun for the purists of being.

I was, I am, I looked within and saw

nothing very clearly: purest being.

Of course, most of Stan’s oracular charm existed because of the poetry itself. The words “amazing,” “stunning,” full of “wonder,” “extraordinary,” and “genius” are all superlatives I’ve seen other poets apply to his work in the wake of his death. He made my own poems more responsive to that finer layer of the world, the one you notice only if you’re not taking it for granted. He shared that observant posture with the British Romantic poets he so loved, as well as an attention to a life lived through emotion. Writing about that all-too-common subject of heartbreak, Stan makes it sing:

Love, too, a leveler, a dying all its own,

the parts left behind not to be replaced,

a loss ongoing, and every day increased,

like rising in the night, at 3:00 am,

to watch the snow or the dead leaf fall,

the rings around the streetlight in the rain,

and then the rain, the red fist in the heart

opening and closing almost without me.

(from “Variation on a Line from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Five Flights Up’”)

Note the way that he makes the whole notion of lost love hinge on the word “almost.”

Poets are keenly aware that words outlive them. In Stan’s case, he left us with models of perfect pitch, imagery, and line. In “Ground Birds in Open Country,” he admits to letting the birds, the poems, go for us, anytime we might encounter his work in the future:

                       And in a hallway once,

a bird went mad, window by locked window,

the hollow echo length of a building.

I picked it up closed inside my hand.

I picked it up and tried to let it go.

They fly up so quickly in front of you,

without names, in the slurred shapes of wings.

Scatter as if shot from twelve-gauge guns.

Or they fly from room to room, from memory

past the future, having already gathered

in great numbers on the ground.

Another one of Stan’s students, Laura Dickinson, summed up his influence this way: “He made me a better poet. I can say nothing that is more significant about his impact on me than that,” to which Jeanne Griggs then added, “I think he also made me a better person, more conscious of things I’d overlooked before he insisted I look.” Truly, there can be no greater epitaph.

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About the guest blogger:

Linda Dove grew up in Howard County and holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Maryland. She teaches college writing and is an award-winning poet; her books include In Defense of Objects (2009), O Dear Deer, (2011), This Too (2017), Fearn (2019), and the scholarly collection of essays, Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain (2000). She lives with her human family, two Jack Russell terriers, and three backyard chickens in the foothills east of Los Angeles, where she serves as the faculty editor of MORIA Literary Magazine at Woodbury University.

https://www.pw.org/content/linda_dove

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